Looper is a futuristic Massacre of the Innocents. Unlike the passages found in the Gospel of Matthew, however, it is a cloaked search in reverse: a great attempt to quash a frightening evil before it is manifest.
Rian Johnson first made waves with his low-budget crime gem, Brick. The film, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a hard-boiled detective story set in a California suburb among high school students. It's a tight-knit story that pulses with energy.
Looper, his latest, also stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt but isn't ever able to grasp that narrative energy.
It certainly starts with a load of promise, as the audience is transported to a decrepit and dystopian future where Gordon Levitt, as Joe, and his fellow Loopers exist as a class apart from the disheveled masses. These Loopers are hit-men that clean up the messes of future gangsters, where time travel is as illegal as murder. To, well, avoid two birds with one stone, they kidnap their targets and transport them back to the past where a Looper is waiting with a cheap gun and a nice watch. The unfortunate person is wiped from the earth quite literally.
The opening sequences are kinetic and engaging, yet they are so without ever sacrificing the humanity of our protagonist Joe, a conflicted, but aspirational young man reliant on psychotropic drugs to get through his day. Through the appearance of his future self, played admirably by Bruce Willis, we see his first redemptory life “loop” — rough guy drug addict escapes the life before sliding back into criminality and eventually falling in love with a striking Chinese beauty in the midst of a bar fight, through whose love he finds redemption.
On a normal story arc, this would be a formidable love story. Yet, we're never offered that chance, as the “loop” of one reality blurs and shifts when Old Joe is sent back to the past to be killed by Young Joe. With a conviction to hold onto his life in a blissful incarnation of China some 25 years in the future, Old Joe begins a quest to save three lives — his own times two and the life of his wife — by snuffing out the powerful life that destroys his in the future. His younger self, however, sees his old life as an aberration, his ticket to certain death, so a cat & mouse game emerges in which young Joe tries to stop his old self, all the while being hampered by the fact that old Joe possesses his memory. He is both Herod and savior.
In these strict confines, Looper is a great, at times brilliant film. It's intelligent with engaging action sequences and strong performances by most of the cast.
Further, while heady, Looper never allows itself to get bogged down by the theoretical concepts at work. In fact, Rian Johnson does a remarkable job mixing in comedic relief. Which, though welcome and genuinely funny, has an odd counter-effect that seems to lessen the overall impact of the movie. Not because humor has no place in a serious film, but instead because the humor itself is incongruous to the narrative.
Take, for example, the character known as Kid Blue. This 'gat man' has potential to be a great character. His desire to prove himself is evident, but this wish to be 'hard' or respected is counter-acted by his own inherent clumsiness. In short, he's a doofus. Not a cardinal sin, but his character is never developed. He appears as a walking caricature, a (cinematic) Marxist inserted into a serious, dystopian movie.
Further, from a somewhat opposite spectrum, there is a remarkable scene where old Joe vaults from a guy fighting for his existence to a modern-day Rambo, mowing down waves of men as if he were instead a video game protagonist. This not only gives the older Joe an aura of undue invincibility, but it, along with the ineptness of Kid Blue, places the supposed fierceness of the mafia in question.
Taken together, the two incongruities may not seem much, but they work against the movie, pushing against its own possibility. As an audience, Johnson leaves us with an engaging work that glimpses greatness but seems crippled by a fear toward such aspirations.